Friday, December 30, 2016

Modern Art the Card Game - all the flavor with none of the auctions

Modern Art the Card Game, also published as Masters Gallery for them who like classic artists, is quite literally Modern Art after Reiner Knizia took a chainsaw and hacked off the auctions.

Yeah, he removed the single most defining element of the game. And, Sweet Sackson, it still works!

In Modern Art, paintings in the form of cards are auctioned off. After one artist has had six paintings sold in one season (round), the paintings of the top three artists are sold for the profit of the players. If an artist was in the top three in a previous round, their paintings are more valuable. However, even if an artist's paintings would be worth an astronomical some things to previous rounds, they only get so if they're in the top three.

Modern Art the Card Game takes that formula and ditches the auctions. Instead, players just play cards from their hands in front of them. You don't by paintings from auctions and you don't get to pocket the profits from your own auctions.

There are still a few clever little bits, though, to help keep everyone on their toes. Some of the cards have special powers that go off when you play them. These include the power to play another card by the same artist at the same time, to draw a card into your hand, to increase the value of an artist, or to lay down a card facedown in order to keep everyone guessing.

Another twist is that you get dealt increasingly fewer cards as the rounds go by, getting no new cards on the last round. Which means that you got to start planning your long game right from the start.

What you get, at the end of the day, is a lighter and shorter game than the original. However, it's still a tense little game with plenty of room for clever play. 

While you don't have the direct interaction of auctions, you still have the constantly changing, silent alliances since you can't put one artist on top by yourself. In fact, since you don't get the profits from auctioning paintings, these unspoken alliances are even more important.

When Modern Art the Card Game first came out, it's spent a couple months in constant rotation in my gaming group.  And this was at a time when we were constantly playing new games (an unnamed member of the group, perhaps one that keeps a blog, kept buying new games) and a game getting played twice in succession was pretty impressive. So that much steady play is quite the compliment for the game.

Modern Art the Card Game isn't as good as its parent game. The original game is such an amazing auction game. However, the card game is still plenty of fun. It takes up even less storage space, which is always nice. It plays down to two, which the original game definitely couldn't do. And it plays pretty darn quick.

It does what a card version of a board game should do. It gives you a condensed experience while still being true to the original and fun. 

The return of family friendly games

I am a big fan of Bundle of Holding. For the last few years, I have bought quite a few different bundles. It has been a great source of Indy style games for me. But, one of the rewarding bundles was the family friendly bundle.

While some of the games were simply suitable for younger audiences, some of them were firmly aimed at the under ten crowd. While I am sure our son will grow up to have no interest in tabletop role playing games, it's fun to look at what might work with him in a couple years.

I still think Hero Kids, which is designed for kids as young as four, may be the best RPG I've seen for toddlers. Very simple but very mechanically grounded. Kids don't need to learn how to use their imagination but they do need to learn on rules work. I also really liked Mermaid Adventures, having a wide open but non-violent setting.

So, when Bundle of Holding ended the year with their second Family Friendly Bundle, I was super excited.

Two of the games are ones I've been very interested in. I've been wanting to read Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple for a while. I'm interested in games that include collaborative writing, like Microscope. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

I'm also very curious about No Thank You Evil, that has Monte Cook as one of the designers. It was recommended to me when I first started writing about RPGs aimed at the younger set but it hadn't even come out yet. Now, at long last, I'll get to read it.

But I'm going to read every last book that comes in the bundle. I'm sure 2017 will have plenty of surprises and unexpected events but I'm going to do my best to read and review everything in this bundle. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Gaming in two dimensions

Edwin A. Abbit's Flatland is a classic of quirky literature. A short Victorian novel that describes a world of literally two-dimensions, it has been described as the Alice in Wonderland of geometry. Which, quite frankly, is putting on airs. Alice is a juggernaut of literature and cultural influence. Still, Flatland is an ingenious and influential little book that I have read and reread many times over the years.

So I was interested in looking at the Original Flatland RPG and read through it on Christmas Day. By the way, I think that the word Original is used to indicate that the rules were designed for the game, since there have been adaptations to use other rule sets for Flatland.

Mechanically, the Flatland RPG uses a traditional structure with a game master and fairly simple system. Characters have a mind stat and a body stat, largely determined  number of sides. Throw in some disadvantages and advantages and some skills and you're done. Resolution is done by rolling two dice and consulting a chart.

But no one is getting on board a Flatland game for the mechanics. You buy your ticket for the setting.

A lot of the setting development comes from the sample adventures and adventure seeds. Which, tragically, ended up being the least satisfying part of the book for me. Because they were filled references to lots of pop culture. The Sharpe novels, Scarface, High Lander and Lovecraft were all prominent. 

My problem is that, as simple a concept as Flatland is, it is still a dinstinct and profoundly alien setting. Adding elements from other works doesn't seem to do the setting justice, as well as not really exploring the setting.

The other big chunk of setting development are the appendixes which discuss the science of Flatland. Now that, on the other hand, is what I was hoping for and was a lot of fun to read. I really got into that and everything I felt like I wasn't getting in the adventures I got there.

The book also includes the rules for a  light war game/abstract strategy game that simulates warfare in Flatland, a bibliography of inspirations and the entire original novel, since it public domain. I doubt I'll try the war game but it's fun to include it. And it's not like I need another copy of the novel but it is nice to have included it, which also doubles the size of the book. 

I wasn't surprised to The Planiverse in the bibliography. It's the most important scientific examination of a two-dimensional world, as well as the inspiration for Alak, a one-dimensional Go variant I like to play. Really got to read it one of these days. I was surprised and delighted to see The Fantastic Umbrella, an obscure fantasy novel that has the characters visit Flatland in one chapter.

The Original Flatland RPG isn't the definitive RPG for Flatland. I'm not sure what will be but I am sure there is more depths to explore with the setting. Still, it's a pretty good try (and I am glad someone has made that try) and well worth the read. It would be fun to play.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Is the reboot of Quantum and Woody any good?

I have finally gotten around to reading the reboot of Quantum and woody. I was a big fan of the original series and I was really curious to see if the new version could live up to the quirky and cutting brilliance of the original.

Quantum and Woody, the world's worst super team, was a strange combination of social commentary, character development and sophomoric humor. It explored racism and friendship and goats wearing funny costumes. It managed to be crude and touching all at the same time. 

Part of what made it so strong was the fact that both of the main characters were deeply flawed and hurting people. They may have been trying to play the part of superheroes (well, Quantum was, at least) but they were really anti-heroes struggling to be functional.

Anyway, the reboot is not nearly as good as the original. Having said that, that's kind of like comparing anyone to Michelangelo. Yes, I just called  Christopher Priest Michelangelo. And it felt great.

The reboot is good. When I am not comparing it to the impossibly high standards of the original version, it was a fun, occasionally thoughtful read. I definitely had a good time reading it.

And they did make some choices that I liked. Woody, who was never into the whole superhero thing and really just did it to take care of Eric, doesn't even wear a costume in the new version. Heck, Eric drops the cape and all the pouch is pretty darn quickly, creating a costume that is a lot more like someone might wear in real life. 

Of course, the giant change is that the goat officially has superpowers from the get go. No, seriously, it's having them be brothers. Really wish they had gone farther exploring that but it does make an interesting change and they definitely look at what it means to be family.

Still, the new version of Eric, even though he's a lot more reluctant to pursue being a superhero as Quantum compared to the original version, seems a lot more emotionally capable of doing it. And Woody comes across as a lot more shallow but a lot less emotionally damaged. Both of them seem a lot less emotionally damaged. Instead of two borderline functional guys who accidentally got superpowers, the new version are more like a legitimate hero and his slightly shady best friend.

And for those of you who have only read the reboot version and are finding it strange that I'm calling them not emotionally damaged, you just have to read the original.   

Still, I am glad that this title keeps on coming back. The reboot might not be as good as the original but it carries on in the same spirit.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Celebrating the holidays with the BGG card exchange

This is the second year that we've taken part in the Boardgame Geek Christmas card exchange. Last year, we just got our toes wet with four cards but we got more ambitious with ten cards this time.

Ever since we got a Cricut, which is a precision paper cutting machine, we've been making a lot of homemade cards. So the Christmas card exchange is just bringing two of our hobbies together.

It really is a way of being a part of the greater family of Boardgame Geek. Yeah, I spend a lot of time on the site. I post there regularly and have even played games there. But sending out homemade cards is one more level of being active in the community.

And it's been fun to get cards back. Our card wall has been extra spiffy this year, although the hand knit mug warmer decorated with meeples was a particular high light (Thanks, Ryan!)

Happy holidays, gamers everywhere!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Looney Labs sent one heck of a holiday gift this year

I've been on Looney Labs Holiday Gift list since...2005. Wow.

And, up until this point, my favorite holiday gift from Looney Labs has been the 2008 World War 5, because using the pyramids to play a simplified Risk just tickled my fancy. 

But the 2016 Holiday present of Sandships is a new high park for me. 

Sandships is a light war game/area of control game. You build towers in Martian cities and fight with the title Sandships on a claustrophobic board. While your options are determined by specialty dice, there is a wild face and other ways of getting wilds so you actually have a lot of flexibility.

It also came with stickers so you could turn three playing dice into lightning dice, which are part of the Pyramid Arcade set. Since I have so far decided against getting that, since I have tons and tons of pyramids already, that is a really nice bonus.

But here is the real reason I was so thrilled when I open the mailbox.

One of the prototypes that Andy Loney showed us Looney Lab fans at Rincon was Sandships. And I got to play it three times in a row, with two, three and four players. And I had a really great time, despite getting crushed every game.

So I knew exactly what was in the envelope and it was something that I had had a lot of fun with.

It is always fun to get one of Looney Labs' holiday gifts. But this year, it was the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas and the crocodile's suitcase.

Atacama: mining as through a spreadsheet

Out of all the games that have been recently added to Yucata, Atacama is the one that I knew the absolute least about.

A little bit of research later, I found out that Atacama is a game that was designed as part of a contest to create a game using the components of a previously existing game and other spare parts. And, just for the record, it didn't win. However, it did get published, which is saying something.

The theme of Atacama is mining for gold, silver and copper in South America. The reality is that it's an abstract of placing neutral pawns in a nine by nine grid. Bit like filling out a spreadsheet. Every space has a good or silver or copper mine on it, along with a numeric value ranging from one to five, indicated by dots of the metal.

OK, here's where it gets interesting. Each player or team is either the horizontal rows or the vertical columns. You need for pawns in line before it scores but each direction has a metal (a different one, natch) that scores negative points. And pawns can't be right next each other, creating a way to block each other and create dead spaces.

So far, I've just played the basic version of the game. Some of the variants include special pawns that count as two pawns and revealing the board slowly, one section at a time. (The board is made up of nine tiles so there is a lot of room for variable set ups.)

I still have to play the game plenty more times and play the variants but I have a feeling that the game is solvable, at least in the versions were you know the whole board. I suspect, at a high enough skill level that there is a strong second player advantage. Although, thanks for blocking, I can also see how there might be a very strong first player advantage instead. Regardless, I really suspect that skilled play will favor one position.

And, despite the mining theme in the reasonably pretty mining artwork, there is no denying that this is a pure abstract in a fairly dry one at that. Which isn't a problem for me but I know makes it less appealing for a lot of folks I know.

So here's the thing. I have been enjoying Atacama a whole lot more than I think it has any right to be enjoyed. The whole sharing pawns and creative ways of blocking each other has been a surprising amount of fun for me.

I don't know if I would play this face-to-face. There's a lot of good abstract options out there for that. But, as part of my Yucatá rotation, I can easily see myself getting in a dozen place of this and trying out all the variations. It's not going to be a game that I will play forever but I will play it.

I know that's not high praise but that's not bad.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dying on a mountain in about an hour

While reading through South Side of the Sky, one of the many teeny tiny RPG's from the Indy Megamix Mixtape, it has occurred to me that, even though I am trying to go slow, reading all of these little role-playing games is starting to make me blasé.

On the one hand, there is still part of me that is old enough that the idea of micro RPGs and two-player RPGs and GM-free RPGs and one-session-by-design RPGs are pretty amazing. The reality is the revolution is over and both sides won. There are a lot of new and innovative role-playing games out there but the older ways are still going strong with plenty of good gaming out there.

On the other hand, at this point, I've seen a whole lot of them. Some, like Microscope and Fiasco, have been amazing experiences period. Others, well, they can be okay but not inspiring. Any role playing game can fun and creative with the right people but some games and some systems help really bring that out.

South Side of the Sky is a two-player game about two people who are lost on a mountain and struggling to survive and get home. Hint: it's not going to end well. The best you can hope for is to not be dead yet at the end of the game.

The mechanics as fairly simple. Each player gets a hand of ten cards from a regular deck of playing cards. Each scene is a call and response, with one player setting the scene and the other responding. You play cards that define what's happening and the mood of the scene. 

Most of the rules are actually a guide to what each card means. Or, if you want to be more free-form, each suit as a general meaning, giving you more room to improvise.

Whoever played the higher card put the cards in their discard pile. If the caller gets the cards, things went well. If the responder gets the card, bad times. Whoever has the fewest cards at the end will narrate the ending and if they have more black cards, everybody dies.

Having lived in a couple different places where there are mountains and getting to hear news reports on a semi regular basis of people getting lost and dying in them, I do have to admit that the theme resonates for me. 

And I do think that the rules create a very strong if simple framework to work with. There aren't any gaping holes and the resolution system is very clean.

At the same time, South of the Sky didn't really excite me. I will freely admit that part of that is because I have just looked at so many micro RPGs this year. I'm getting a little jaded. But even considering that, I don't think there's that inspiring  hook that really makes a game like this shine. Solid ideas but there isn't a twist.

There are definitely some good ideas that work here. But I think it needs just a little more.

Yucatá keeps on delivering

Yucatá has been one of my primary gaming experiences over the last few years. The moving to a whole new part of the country and having a small child has meant online gaming has been a godsend. And the last few months have definitely seen a decent number of new games added to the site.

Every time a game is added to Yucatá, it feels like a game has been added to my closet. More than that, everyone who signs on has access to the same games so everyone involved has the same chance to play.

Since October, we've seen Attika, Packet Row, Spexxx, Atacama and Las Vegas get added. I've had a chance to play them all by now. In the case of Attika, it was the chance to revisit a game that I haven't played in years.

None of these games are particularly heavy. In fact, some of them are awfully light. However, when you are playing online Internet-based, the disconnect from time and space can add weight to games. Coming back to a game after a day or two and figuring out what's going on is a different mental process than playing face-to-face. Although, sometimes, that can actually make a game easier. But it is definitely different.

I do realize that five games over the course of three months might not sound like that much. Back when I was in the cult of the new, that could be one game order. However, I didn't always play all those games. These new games on Yucatá, I am playing all of them multiple times.

And I know that I will play even the weakest of the lot, which is probably Acatama, several times to explore it. That's another thing that Yucatá lets me do, really explore repetition.

Yucatá keeps on delivering a good experience for me.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Black Spot, a game for emergencies

The Black Spot is a very simple story-telling RPG that fills a couple of interesting slots in one's bag of tricks. It'll play a larger group, up to eight players; has almost no prep time; and will play out fairly quickly. It's not an amazing game, to be perfectly honest, but it is something that can be pulled out without a problem in a pinch.

I had assumed, from the title, that it was pirate-themed since the Black Spot is a reference Treasure Island. The rules even confirm that. However, it is actually a game of cinematic horror. 

The Black Spot is a GM-free system, which is no surprise since it is a storytelling game with minimal prep. However, it has a tighter, less free-form framework compared to a lot of storytelling games. 

The game is driven by a deck of special cards. You'll have to make the deck yourself, which could be a make or break issue for some folks. Personally, since print and play is one of my hobbies, that doesn't bother me.

After creating characters, who are made up of just a first name, an adjective and a profession (like Billy the Nervous Detective) and choosing a story concept (the game comes with some but, hey, horror movie. Not hard to make one yourself), you take turns being the dealer and dealing out one card to each player.

The cards, for the most part, consist of types of scenes and a sentence that you have to use in that scene. Depending on the structure you choose, you have 15 seconds to as much time as you want to use a scene. Go around the table with everyone playing their card and then the dealer moves and a new round of cards is dealt.

The Black Spot cards suspend regular play and create a more free-form scene where everyone has to interact with whatever the antagonist is.

The game wraps up when either everyone is dead or escaped or you've run the deck out. Honestly, even with no time limit per turn, I doubt a game would last more than a couple of hours.

The strengths and the weaknesses of the Black Spot are pretty closely linked together. On the one hand, it is a dead easy pick up and play a game. The longest part of set up is creating the deck, since you have to front load it with backstory cards and bottom load it with escape cards. You can get a game going with a larger
group of players in about five minutes.

On the other hand, it's going to create a fairly shallow story. A lot of the choices that you make will be influenced by the cards, particularly since you have to fit the sentence on the scene card into your scene. That does make it easier for folks who are not used to storytelling games but it is a big limiting factor and, if you were to play the game a lot, it could get repetitive.

And, frankly, there are a lot of games out there about horror. The annoyingly out-of-print Final Girl has a similar ensemble style but I think that it does it much better. Just as one example. If I had time in the planned group, I would probably pick another game then the Black Spot.

However, the Black Spot only takes up a deck of cards worth of space in the game bag. It works perfectly well as an emergency RPG that only takes five minutes to teach and set up. And it's structure makes it perfect to play with strangers or folks who are used to storytelling RPG's.

The Black Spot isn't a game I'd pick for planned play or my usual group of narrative players. But I'm going to make that deck in case of emergencies. :D

Exploring a tomb in just one page

Tombs: The Sword of Valhalla is a solitaire PnP that combines an interesting theme with fascinatingly minimal mechanics to create... okay, not that great a game. That said, I can't help but appreciate how the designer crammed an adventure game into one sheet of paper. 

T:tSoV describes how a team of archeologists are exploring and excavating the tomb of a Viking king, in search of the fabled sword in the title of the game. One of the most crucial mechanics is managing your resources by selling off artifacts you find.

Okay, make that a team of ethically questionable archeologists. Or just a group of tomb robbers. 

The entire game consists of one sheet of paper, which includes the rules, a map of the tomb which looks like it was made out of Viking Legos, a couple of tracks and an event table. All you need to play is four dice.

One die serves as the pawn to show where you are in the tomb and track how many party members are still alive. One die will help you track how many accused hex points your tomb desecration has earned you. One die lets you track both your supply inventory and the number of artifacts you've found. And you actually roll the last die for the event table.

Basically, the game is one combat-system short of being a dungeon crawl. 

It's cute how the whole thing fits on one page. The designer did a good job with the flavor text, creating a legitimate narrative of exploring the tomb. And I think that the way all the bookkeeping is done with just three dice is really neat.

But the game play is basically slogging across the map to the last chamber. If you run out of supplies or if everyone dies (which becomes a lot easier in the last chamber), you lose. You're not entirely at the mercy of the dice since you can use your supplies influence the roll but most of the decisions are pretty obvious ones.

So, while I admire how the whole idea of fitting an adventure on one page and the elegant way of book keeping with just a few dice and no pencil or paper, the actual game play just didn't excite me. I wouldn't have paid for the game and if it took more than ten minutes or so, I doubt I'd have tried it.

I admit, if I had found T:tSoV in an issue of Dragon Magazine in the early 80s, I'd have probably played the heck out of it for a few weeks. Since, hey, easy solo adventure. Indeed, it feels like something out of that era, before mobile devices made that sort of thing commonplace.

Seriously, mobile devices have really changed the whole solitaire game experience, at least for me. When I can turn on a dungeon crawl and get in some solitaire gaming with a device that I carry around in my pocket almost all the time, it makes games like T:tSoV seem kind of superfluous.

So I find myself being glad I found and experienced this game because it speaks to my inner eight-year-old. It's not something that I will revisit very often, maybe not at all. But it was fun to see something like this again.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Tough cops busting serious rhymes

Rhyme Fighter the RPG combines hard hitting police police drama with a poetry jam. 

Wow. I never thought I'd write that sentence.

Rhyme Fighter is part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, a big collection of little games. Most of them are only a couple of pages long and Rhyme Fighter is no exception. Let's see, what other labels does Rhyme Fighter have other than micro game? It's also a GM-free system that's designed for one-shots.

You are a group of funky police officers, top notch rhyme masters who can take on the crimes that no one else can. You do this by collecting playing cards by doing well at a group poetry jam session. The setting is pretty fast and fancy free. While its allegedly a police procedural, the few bits about the setting include aliens and robots. 

You create a case by drawing four cards from a regular deck of cards, consulting a chart for the details, writing everything down on index cards. You create four additional index cards marked Who, Where, Why and How. When you solve those questions, you've solved the case.

The role-playing fits a style that I've seen many times in GM-free systems. One player becomes the active player, setting the scene. Then the player to the right acts as the temporary GM. Everyone else fills in as necessary, both for their own characters and any additional NPCs.

Until you get to the point where you need some conflict resolution. When the temporary GM decides that things have reached the point where something is going to happen, the poetry jam starts.

Starting with the temporary GM, the players take turns rattling off two verse couplets. As long as anyone but the GM can keep the verse going, they get to draw a card and put it face up in front of them. Every time the GM passes the verse, they get to take a card away from someone. The scene ends when someone can't finish a verse. If it's the temporary GM, they have to draw and add a card to the players stash. If it's anyone else, the temporary GM gets to take away another card.

If the players can make a set from one suit that adds up to 10, they put those cards on one of the evidence index cards. If you have a face card in the mix, that means there are complications that will have to be resolved later. Jokers will let you mix two suits, but when that happens, that's when the aliens with lasers and mind control  show up.

When all the evidence has been stitched up and all of the complications of been resolved, you cracked the case. And there are no rules for failure. You are the best of the best, rhyme masters supreme. It might take you a while but you will solve that case.

In the end, what we are looking at is a ludicrous premise tied with a party game for the mechanics. Of course, I'm a fan of Baron Munchaussen, an early indie RPG whose rule set is so simple that it makes Rhyme Fighter look like Champions. So neither of those things are a bad thing in my eyes.

I do like the quirky theme of the game. I also like how, despite the very simple rules, Rhyme Fighters does push the boundaries of what you can do with narrative games. And I've seen a lot of pushing. I also like how the odds are actually stacked in the players' favor.

But... the players having to be able to come up with a rhyming couplet that furthers the story on the spot? That might be a deal breaker. That's something that some players might really struggle with. That could turn the game from fun to frustration.

I'm glad Rhyme Fighters exist. I think that quirky, narrative games are an important part of the development of the hobby. However, particularly as I develop a large library of those kind of games, I doubt I'll ever play Rhyme Fighter.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Looking at my past means looking at Catan

Like a lot of people who got into boardgames around 2000 or so, Settlers of Catan was my entry point into designer board games. Other games like Carcassonne and Puerto Rico and, yes, even Fluxx played important roles but Catan was the very first.

I first encountered Settlers of Catan visiting my out-of-state friend Doug. It would actually be a while before I'd play again or really get into board games but that was the very start. And when I did start really getting into the newer board games, Settlers of Catan was at the forefront.

As I commented before, Settlers of Catan was a lot of people's introduction to designer games/Euro Games/German Family Games when I first got into myself. I wonder if that's still the case or if there's another new entry point. There are a lot more games out there and a lot of good ones. But Catan has also reached the point of being mainstream. Worldwide, really. It is still a good game, one I still play when I can.

Over the years, it feels like I've seen a lot of Catan hate in the actual community. Some of it, I think comes from the same kind of thinking that when everyone starts liking the band that no one ever heard of, they stop being cool. 

I also wonder if the fact that Catan is fundamentally a family game is another reason that some folks have issues with it. Because while there are ways of attacking each other and it is anything but a cooperative game, you still have to interact and get along with each other well enough to pull off a least a couple trades. I have played with folks who could keep a mental spreadsheet going that I would need excel for but who couldn't trade for beans.

I haven't heard this old saw in a long time, the idea that non-gamers would compare anything they'd see you playing to Monopoly. (So, Twilight Imperium? It's just like Monopoly, right?) My favorite experience like that was someone watching me teach Zendo and saying "So it's like Mastermind but with Tetris pieces" to which I replied "Exactly" since that was a pretty good call.

But, in many important ways, Catan is like Monopoly. If you play Monopoly as a trading game about infrastructure development, that is. If you play Monopoly as 'roll the dice and go round and round the board', you just like hearing me scream.

Still, all the things that make Monopoly actually worth playing (developing an infrastructure, wheeling and dealing as you trade with each other, the dice making everything uncertain and exciting) are in Catan, without the stuff that makes people burn bundles of Monopoly in a bonfire. That's part of what makes it accessible.

At the same time, Catan was the first board game I ever played that was truly inclusive. Between the possibility of being able to get resources on anyone's turn and trading, Catan does a good job keeping everyone engaged all the time. No long waits in between turns where I can go and make myself a sandwich.

I think Catan's true strength and staying power is that it is fundamentally about interacting with the other players. On the one hand, you have to get along well enough to make good trades. On the other hand, you have to be prepared to stomp their faces into the dirt with the bandit and monopoly card and cut them off. That's a pretty high level level of interaction within a pretty simple set of rules.

Settlers of Catan is a milestone in boardgames. It really did change the hobby. But, more than that, I think that it is a game that still has the place in the world and in a lot of people's collections.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I'm not special but my taste isn't that bad

After writing about how a friend's gaming group had been regularly playing some games for over a decade, that made me think about what games have had years worth of play for me.

I quickly realized that it was a really boring list. As opposed to a list of games that no one but me and my close friends would have ever heard vast majority of the games were ones that everyone has heard of, including people who aren't really in the hobby.

Settlers of Catan. Carcassonne. Ticket to Ride. Those are the top of the list of games I've been playing since I pretty much got into board games. (I accidentally bought Ticket to Ride when it just came out when I couldn't get TranAmerica. Best. Mistake. Ever)

There goes any chance of me thinking of myself as a special snowflake who has spent years playing hidden masterpieces no one else has ever heard of :D

(Well, I have been playing Alak, a quirky one-dimensional Go off and on for the past eight years. That's off the beaten path. But I wouldn't make it the centerpiece of a game night.)

Instead of my take away from this being that I'm a really boring gamer, I'm taking this as a sign that gaming has and will have meaningful and significant milestones. There will be games that have staying power through being accessible, replayable and through just being good.

(I also think that only time will really tell what those milestones will be. After all, everyone sets out to design one! And there are degrees of time, ranging from publication schedules to generations to centuries. Hi, Go and Chess!)

So I may not be a special snowflake who has special insight but I do appreciate a good game. That's what I'm telling myself. If I've been playing a game on a regular basis for over ten years and it's still in print, I'll call it a milestone for the hobby.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Replay value

During a recent conversation with an old friend (one of the people who was crucial into getting me into board games), he listed all the games that had gotten played at his last game night. And I noticed every game he listed was at least ten years old.

My first thought was 'Damn, we're getting old!' Heck , I remember at least one one of those games first deputed at Gen Con.

My second thought was 'Yeah, that is a good place to be.'

(The games, in case anyone is curious, were Tsuro, Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix, Catan and Notre Dame. Okay, Notre Dame is just nine years old but close enough!)

I remember an old anecdote I heard years ago of someone who would only buy hand tools if they were at least fifty years old. Presumably from antique stores.  I think there's more than few things to question about that practice. And I don't think the real moral is that they made hammers so much better fifty years ago. 

But if something holds up to years of use, that is a strong recommendation.

I don't believe that game design was so much better ten years ago. Quite frankly, I think designers and the industry have benefited from ten years of innovation and refinement.

However, games that survive ten or more years, not just staying in print but games that get played on a regular basis, those are some rocking games.

And that's something that I think is worth looking for. For me, as I suspect other folks, constantly looking for the next big thing has given way to looking for what what I want to play year after year.

Friday, December 9, 2016

At the Edge of the Woods: A small and simple game designed for lots of writing

The Edge of the Wood, part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, is a roleplaying game that falls squarely into my current interests. It's a GM-free system that's designed to be played via email or forum. It is entirely build around the written word. 

At its heart, the game consists of taking turns writing stuff.

The game is broken down into two phases: character building and narrative building. Pretty much the way most RPGs work, really. First you make the characters and then you send them out into the world to have adventures.

The Edge of the Woods' character building is built around a bunch of lists. They include a bunch of character elements (what they are, what they can do, what they have and what they want), connections between characters and narrative elements. After you've done your bit with a list, you cross off one of the elements you've used and write down a new one. So the lists keep evolving and everyone gets to show how they would like the game to develop.

The narrative building phase of the game has the active player pick one of five different mini-games for the group to play. Each one uses a different form of interaction, although they all involve players taking turns writing.

These mini games include big events that shake up the entire setting, individual reactions to a specific narrative element or straight up character development. Some of them have players right out whole scenes while others have them just write a single sentence. One involves each player taking turns changing one word in a sentence that the active player wrote.

In other words, they aren't the same writing exercise about different subjects. Each one explores narrative and character development and writing in a different way.

The Edge of the Woods does read like a rough draft. The fact that it is only two pages long doesn't help. I have a feeling that if the game had a couple more pages, including a discussion on gameplay, it would tighten the game up and make it more accessible.

As it is, I am most likely to play it with friends who have played a lot of narrative-driven games and games-by-post so I am confident in our ability to make it work. Still, like I always say, a group can often determine if a game will work. The Edge of the Wood has the special burden of play by post. Great if folks can't get together but easy for people to forget to take a turn.

I also have to note that the default lists, which describe a lighthearted fairytale setting with gnomes and talking animals, could easily be rewritten without having any mechanical issue. You could take the mechanics of The Edge of the Woods and make it horror or science fiction or modern business drama. I am actually tempted to try doing a Star Wars hack of the system and I'm not even that much of a Star Wars fan.

The Edge of the Woods is very much a niche game, specifically designed as a game built around writing and playing via some sort of computer interface. But as someone who loves writing and has a lot of friends who live in different time zones, I am solidly in that niche. I have a feeling that I will end up trying it out and I think we will have fun.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My reaction to a guide to running seriously old school

I read Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks without a real idea what I was getting myself into. I assumed I was reading something along the lines of the Grimtooth's Trap books. Instead, what I really found was the philosophy of someone who's been running games for decades.

The premise of the book is giving a dungeon master a tool kit for making players' lives more interesting. The goal isn't to kill the characters but to challenge them in a way that makes good storytelling.

What was probably the most interesting part of the book for me was the section before  it gets into the dirty tricks, Bill Webb's house rules. A big focus of the house rules is to slow down advancement. Take the time to get to know your character.

He's also a big proponent of simulation. One of the most fascinating examples of this is having players describe how they deactivate a trap as opposed to rolling a die to see if they can deactivate it. I'm torn between finding that really neat and completely unreasonable. After all, your character might be a master thief but you're not.

An interesting element in the dirty tricks section was, if the players have too much money, do something like start a holy war or put them in charge of a province. In other words, do something that's basically a campaign for the sake of making them spend money.

Needless to say, Bill Webb is an old school, back to Gygax kind of dungeon master. He makes a bunch of references to the good old, pile up the dead characters, Tomb of Horrors. This is some serious, pre-Reagan RPG philosophy. 

There are some things I don't care for with this approach. Webb seems to have problems with players using the rules to gain advantages. While abusing the rules can be a real problem, Webb seems to push it to the point of punishing players for learning to use the rules.

It's important to remember that, back when RPGs were still extensions of miniatures games, the role of the DM really was to compete against the players, as opposed to a neutral referee or a friendly collaborator. But I think there are good reasons that changed.

And I have been in games where the DM has had an antagonistic relation with the players, although in one case, the players started it. For me, it ultimately becomes not just frustrating but boring.

This is more of a personal note but I also question the time of time wasters, something that got its own section. Having a party waste an hour on a fake door might make for a good anecdote but when you have to carefully budget your game time, the idea is just infuriating.

HOWEVER, while I don't like several elements of Webb's DMing approach, it did take me back to the days when I was able to be in a weekly campaign and spend years slowly developing both characters and storylines. It is an incredibly rich and engaging experience. It is a very rewarding way to explore role playing.

Old school elements like slow, gradual development and low fantasy and simulation, detail heavy mechanics aren't bad things. They are fundamental elements to the development of RPGs AND they have not been superseded. 

Bill Webb's book didn't leave me with a desire to play under Bill Webb. However, it did bring back fond memories of another part of my game in life.

Riders: interesting take on the end of the world but I wanted more

Riders is an RPG that I have decidedly mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I find the concept neat and the game structure unusual for an indie RPG. On the other hand, I wanted so much more on the setting.

In Riders, you have been chosen by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse to observe events and signs that will help bring about the end of the world. However, you live on the world. All your stuff is there. So, instead, you are trying to change those events and keep the end times from coming.

The driving force behind the overall plot of the game is the Doom Clock. It starts at 5 to midnight. The players are literally struggling to push the clock back seconds at a time. If it gets as far back is 10 to midnight, The four Horsemen decide it's not time yet and go away. If it hits midnight, well, the world ends. Messily.

Adventures are called chapters, which started out with a ritual that both gives you clues to the event you need to change and helps hide you from the eyes of the Metatron, the voice of God who is keeping track of all these signs. They end with you having an actual fight with the Doom Clock. 

The rules state that a chapter should take about six sessions and you should have an off session after that about the characters' lives when they're not there busy trying to save the world. And any given chapter is really only going to shift the clock a certain number of seconds.

Now, I have played a number of indie  games and I have read a whole lot more of them. As a rule of thumb, I have found that they're designed for relatively short campaigns or even just one shots. Riders is different because it is clearly designed for the long-haul. Yes, there is a definite end in sight, one way or the other, but it'll take you a while to get there.

That means that I'm not likely to play this game anytime in the foreseeable future. However, I like the fact that it really is designed for a longer game with a lot of character development.

What really took me about the game is the concept and setting. It's definitely an interesting idea, maybe a little bit heavy on the sympathy for the devil for my taste, but it is an engaging world. The alternate character templates, if you choose not to be one of the riders, are both interesting and add depth to the setting. In particular, you can be a normal person who accidentally got a page out of the Metatron's notebook.

So here's my problem. Riders doesn't have nearly enough setting information to satisfy me. The designer intentionally kept things vague so that folks could develop the world in the wrong ways. And I am normally really all for that free-form, sandbox approach. My favorite dungeons and dragons campaigns have been in homebrew settings. However, Riders has a very specific structure and I think a more developed setting would be helpful for that.

And, really, I just want more. I thought this was a really interesting take on Biblical End times and I really wanted to see more. I like reading RPG's for fun and reading more about the setting would've been a lot of fun.

Oh, mechanics. Riders uses what is clearly an Apocalypse World influenced system with the addition of a potent but restricted bonus dice. Having had some decent experience with this kind of system, I know that it will work well. Still, if you just gave me the mechanics without the setting, it wouldn't even be a blip on my radar.

I enjoyed reading Riders and I thought that it was a really interesting take on the end of the world. However, I really wanted so much more. It gave me enough to be interested but not enough to get excited.